1918 general election

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, General, Home Rule, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2009), Letters, Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 17

Sir,—In relationto the letters from Micheál Mac Donncha and Nicholas Furlong (HI 17.5, Sept./Oct. 2009) challenging JoostAugusteijn’s statement in his letter (HI 17.4, July/Aug. 2009) that ‘The Sinn Féin electionmanifesto [in the 1918 general election], did not call for a republic, nor didit make it clear that force was going to be used’, I would like to make thefollowing points:
(1)   During theelection campaigns of 1917-18, Sinn Féin speakers repeatedly called for arepublic; this was mentioned in many speeches and (despite British censorship,which tightened after the conscription crisis of early 1918) in the open andclandestine Sinn Féin press; moreover, its opponents highlighted its advocacyof republicanism (the Unionists because they saw this as revealing the trueextent of nationalist disloyalty, the Irish Parliamentary Party because theybelieved a republic was unattainable and the attempt to secure it would onlybring down destruction on the country). Under these circumstances it ishighly unlikely that any politically active person did not know that Sinn Féinadvocated a republic. So far, Mac Donncha’s point stands.

This is not, however, the whole story since we donot know how far those who voted for Sinn Féin saw themselves as actuallyestablishing a republic, as distinct from voting for a republican party in theexpectation that its initial radicalism might give it a stronger negotiatingposition in an eventual compromise settlement. Furlong’s line that ‘thephrase “sinn féin” was sufficient and comprehensively understood’ misses thispoint completely; ‘sinn féin’ implies ultimate sovereignty but not the preciseform this should take.

The divisions which led to the Treaty split werealready visible in embryo before 1918; the largest mass-circulation nationalistnewspaper, the Irish Independent, which had advocated all-Ireland dominion statussince 1916 and to some extent earlier, argued that the election result did notconstitute a popular rejection of Dominion Home Rule (the Irish Party hadadvocated Dominion Home Rule rather than simple implementation of the 1914 HomeRule Act) but only of the Irish Party’s perceived inability to obtain it (aninterpretation promptly denounced as treason against the Republic by the pro-SinnFéin and subsequently anti-Treaty Catholic Bulletin). The Independent, in conjunction with Britishopinion-formers such as Lord Northcliffe, continued to advocate a Dominionsettlement during the conflict, as did a group of ex-Redmondite and moderate Unionistnotables calling themselves the ‘Irish Dominion League’, grouped around SirHorace Plunkett and his weekly Irish Statesman. It is a pity that these pro-Dominionistcampaigns, and the reaction of Sinn Féin activists against them, has notattracted more academic analysis, as it might shed a good deal of light on theprehistory of the later conflict.
(2)   Augusteijn’ssecond point, that Sinn Féin did not necessarily have an electoral mandate tolaunch a war—which I notice MacDonncha does not address—is much harder todismiss. On several occasions in 1917-18 John Dillon publicly claimed thata vote for Sinn Féin would be a vote for another rising, and de Valera as SinnFéin leader publicly denied this and said Sinn Féin would achieve its aims throughpassive resistance. It can of course be argued that passive resistance requiredat least an implicit threat of force and that the activities of the revivedIrish Volunteers in 1918 (which included arms raids and local clashes withpolice) should have enabled voters to read between the lines, but this may beto read history backwards. The first IRA actions of the War ofIndependence were launched on local initiative without reference to the Dáilgovernment (indeed, with the intention of forcing its hand) and in the earlymonths of 1919 some Sinn Féin supporters claimed, with remarkable butapparently genuine naivety, that such incidents as the Soloheadbeg ambush hadbeen perpetrated by government agents provocateurs in order to justifyrepression. (I have seen the same claim made in recent years about theApril 1922 killings of Protestants in Dunmanway, so clearly this mindset is notyet extinct.) A final assessment of the issue must rest on the extent to whichthe War of Independence is seen as undertaken by the Dáil government infulfillment of its commitments, or as forced on it by local IRA initiative andBritish repression.—Yours etc.,

PATRICK MAUME

DIB

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